We know that Florent Schmitt’s penultimate work was the Symphony No. 2, composed in 1957 and premiered in 1958 by Charles Munch and the French National Radio Orchestra a few months before the composer’s death at age 87.
The question is, which composition stands as Schmitt’s first essay in the genre? Because in fact, the composer left no work specifically labeled as a “first” symphony.
So there’s confusion as to whether the Janiana Symphony for String Orchestra, Op. 101 from 1941 represents the composer’s first one … or if that designation should go to the Symphonie Concertante for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 82, composed in 1931.
Personally, I feel that Janiana should get the nod, in that it is a four-movement symphony in every sense of the term – its brevity notwithstanding.
And what a wonderful piece this symphony is: richly scored and musically fulfilling from first note to last.
Anyone who thinks that Schmitt’s considerable talents in orchestration might prove less effective in a piece scored for stringed instruments alone needn’t worry. In fact, Schmitt treats the strings with the same degree of luxuriance that we hear in the composer’s big orchestral scores like La Tragédie de Salomé, Antoine et Cléopâtre and Salammbô.
Taking a look at the parts for Janiana reveals all sorts of devices that add musical interest — and that take this piece far beyond the realm of “string quartet writ large” – such as numerous divisi, tremolos, arpeggios and trills.
Too, the melodies and harmonies in this symphony are robust, complex flavors that combine to produce a richness that is all-too-often missing from strings-only scores.
Janiana is a work that certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome; taken as a whole, the symphony lasts less than 20 minutes. It’s divided into four movements as follows:
- Assez anime, a telescoped sonata form of fewer than 100 measures
- Musette d’allure joyeuse, featuring a capricious and playful scherzo rhythm
- Chorale (Grave, assez lent), its fervent character suggesting an homage to Schmitt’s teacher and mentor, Gabriel Fauré
- Avec entrain, sans precipitation, a spirited conclusion that delivers not only pounding rhythms, but also passionate musical passages and lavish harmonies that are “to die for” …
The Janiana Symphony was composed in 1941 at Schmitt’s summer home in Artiguemy, high in the Pyrenees Mountains. As alluded to in its title, the symphony was dedicated to Jane Evrard, France’s first female professional orchestral conductor, and her Orchestre féminin de Paris. This was an ensemble of 25 women musicians Maestra Evrard founded in 1930, and for which other French composers such as Albert Roussel, Jean Rivier and Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur also wrote scores.
It was Evrard’s orchestra that would give the premiere performance of the symphony in Paris in the spring of 1942.
To my knowledge, there has been only one commercial recording of this work ever made – recorded by Erato in 1966 with the Jean-François Paillard Orchestra.
Janiana was a work that Maestro Paillard would champion throughout his musical career, performing it as late as 2007 leading the Mito Chamber Orchestra in Japan when he was nearly 80 years old.
Speaking about the score during his Japan tour, Maestro Paillard said this about the music:
“When Jane Evrard retired, I inherited several scores from her (with composers’ dedications) which I still possess. The title of ‘Janiana’ means, of course, that it was dedicated to Jane Evrard.
The music of Florent Schmitt is far removed from Debussy’s. It has strong, intense rhythms and sensuous melodies. It even gives the impression of some exotic touches. As such, the music of Janiana exploits every possibility of the string orchestra, and it contains great technical challenges, too …”
As one of the first of Schmitt’s orchestral works beyond La Tragédie de Salomé to receive a recording in the modern era, I’m frankly surprised that no additional recordings have emerged in the decades since, because it’s one of the most full-bodied and engaging scores to come from Schmitt’s pen – so very satisfying on so many levels and with obvious audience appeal.
Fortunately, the Erato recording remains available today as part of a multi-disc set featuring five important Schmitt works for orchestra and for chamber ensemble. It has also been uploaded to the MQCD Musique-Classique website, where it can be heard in far better audio fidelity than in the inferior transcription of the same recording uploaded to YouTube.
To my mind, the Janiana Symphony is a gem of a piece that would be a stellar addition to the repertoire of any chamber or string orchestra. It is a piece that deserves to be far better known. If they haven’t done so already, here’s hoping groups like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will decide to program this symphony someday.